Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, held a second day of hearings on the two Puerto Rico status bills currently pending before Congress.
“I recognize the responsibility of this Committee to play a leading and constructive role in resolving this issue, which is a priority for the people of Puerto Rico,” he began in his opening remarks.
“I am committed to moving this process forward,” he continued, further explaining that “the Committee is approaching a point where it has to make decisions, which is what the residents of Puerto Rico expect and deserve.”
A range of witnesses spoke, from former Member of Congress Luis Gutiérrez to constitutional scholar Christina Ponsa Kraus to economist José Caraballo Cueto. Several members of Congress also weighed in.
Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon stated firmly that HR 1522, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Bill, is the “only one compatible with the Constitution and laws of the United States.” HR 2070, she said, “blatantly ignores the will of the voters and has constitutional flaws.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ), in its analysis of the bill, confirmed that there were no unconstitutional elements in 1522. They wanted some changes in the details of the implementation of the bill but had no objections to the overall structure of HR 1522.
“HR1522 does not impose or force statehood on the people of Puerto Rico. It empowers us, as we would have the last word on the matter through our vote, the only true and proven self-determination process. The bill follows the precedent established for Alaska and Hawaii, establishing a binding and self-executing process to admit Puerto Rico as a State in the event that the majority of voters favor it, ” she continued.
Professor Andrés Córdova, from the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, asked, “What exactly would a status convention propose that has not already been proposed in the last 122 years by the different political parties and analyzed by the political branches of the federal government? Invariably, a status convention would reproduce the same positions that everybody is familiar with. Are we to believe that the delegates to such a convention are to discover any new constitutionally viable formula that has not been part of the political debate for the last century? From a practical point of view, a status convention would not offer any other alternative that we haven’t already had before us and that can be settled by means of a plebiscite or referendum.”
The Department of Justice said several times in their report on HR 2070 that statehood and independence are the only viable alternatives to the current territory status.
“As a matter of political reality, the Puerto Ricans have been exercising their right to self-determination in every electoral event since the approval of the 1952 Constitution and subsequent general elections and local plebiscites, albeit incompletely and inconclusively. The next step in this long overdue process is a federally mandated referendum,” Córdova said.
The Justice Department was adamant that the status convention proposed by HR 2070 could not offer more choices to Puerto Rico than the three options which are viable under the constitution: statehood, territory status, and independence (with or without a Compact of Free Association).
They also confirmed that HR 2070 contains provisions, such as the idea that Congress can bind a future Congress to ratify a status proposal developed by the status convention, that are unconstitutional.
However, Rafael Cox Alomar, a constitutional law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, claimed that Congress is not beholden to the Department of Justice’s position. “This is not a legal question,” he said, “but rather a political question that will require a political compromise between Congress and the people of Puerto Rico,” he said. “Achieving this goal necessarily requires a new procedural approach. The time for non-binding local plebiscites is over. Only a status convention, with equitable participation from all Puerto Rican stakeholders, will command sufficient legitimacy in Washington, San Juan, and around the world, to jumpstart Puerto Rico’s decolonization. Because H.R. 2070 offers the appropriate procedural vehicle for achieving that aim within the context of an inclusive political mechanism, this committee ought to support it.”
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, the author of HR 2070, which is similar to other bills she has introduced in the past, expressed agreement with Cox Alomar.
Grijalva said in his closing remarks, “I’m going to follow up with the Department of Justice in terms of the prerogatives and the powers of Congress and our legislative responsibility in terms of what we can and cannot do. There have been some really clear denunciations about ‘you can’t go any further than this’ because of constitutional limits and prohibitions. I’d like to get that opinion. I’d like to get that pretty clearly as to what the prerogatives are so that argument … is either validated or is off the table.”
Grijalva did not specify the next step beyond the follow up with the DOJ. In their analyses of the two bills, the DOJ said that it agrees that the voters of Puerto Rico should be able to vote on whether or not to become a state, and also “agrees that the people of Puerto Rico should be allowed to choose whether to become a nation independent of the United States, become a state within the United States, or retain the current status of a territory,” adding they believe those are the only “constitutional options available to Puerto Rico.”
“Congress has a legal, political and moral responsibility to help resolve Puerto Rico’s political status,” Grijalva said in his final remarks.